Cancer | Cancer: Medical Vocabulary

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The following are terms that you might hear during the diagnosis and treatment of cancer:

Adjuvant therapy: Chemotherapy, radiotherapy or hormone therapy used to kill remaining cancer cells left behind after surgery.

Advance Directive: Instructions on what kind of care you would like to receive (or not receive) if you become unable to make medical decisions.

Benign: Any tumor, growth or cell abnormality that is not cancerous. The growth will not spread to deeper tissues or other parts of the body.

Biological Therapy: Therapy that uses the body's own immune system to attack cancer cells. Biological therapy is sometimes called immunotherapy, biotherapy or biological response therapy.

Biopsy: Removal of a small portion of tissue to see whether it is cancerous.

Carcinoma In Situ (CIS): Cancer that involves only the cells in which it started and has not spread to deeper tissues or other parts of the body.

Chemotherapy: Therapy that uses drugs to damage cancer cells and make it difficult for them to grow in number.

Clinical Breast Exam: Examination done by a health-care professional who has training in breast health.

Clinical Trials: Research studies that involve actual patients. They are designed to find better ways to manage cancer (and other medical conditions and diseases) from prevention and detection to diagnosis and treatment.

Colonoscopy: Insertion of a long, flexible, lighted tube through the rectum and into the colon. This allows the physician to check the lining of the colon for abnormalities.

Colposcopy: procedure where a lighted, magnifying instrument (colposcope) is used to examine vaginal and cervical abnormalities.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM): Therapy used during or after cancer treatment that may help relieve the symptoms of cancer and/or standard cancer treatments. Some examples of CAM include meditation, yoga, spiritual counseling, acupuncture, acupressure and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).

Digital Rectal Exam: Exam where the doctor feels inside the rectum with his or her finger and checks for abnormalities.

Family History and Genetic Risk Factor: Increased risk of cancer because a close relative (such as a mother or a sister) had or has had the disease.

Family Physician: A doctor who specializes in treating every part and disorder of the human body. He or she may manage all or part of your cancer treatment.

Fecal Occult Blood Test: Test that checks for the presence of blood in the stool. This test can be used to help diagnose colorectal cancer.

Fibroid: A benign tumor usually found in the uterus.

Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: Insertion of a flexible, lighted tube into the rectum. This tube is shorter than the tube used in a colonoscopy. It allows the physician to check the rectum and part of the colon for abnormalities.

Follow-up: An appointment with your doctor after treatment to check the status of your cancer and overall health.

Invasive Cancer: Cancer that starts in one area of the body and then spreads to the deeper tissues of that same area.

Localized: Cancer affecting only the cells of a certain area.

Lumpectomy: Surgery that removes abnormal or cancerous tissue and sometimes part of the surrounding healthy tissue.

Malignant: Indicates that cancer cells are present and may be able to spread to other parts of the body.

Mammogram: An X-ray taken of the breast in order to check for abnormalities.

Mastectomy: Surgical procedure that removes all or part of a diseased (cancerous) breast.

Melanoma: A type of skin cancer where the cancerous cells are found in the melanocytes (cells that make the skin darker after being exposed to natural or artificial sunlight).

Nonmelanoma: A type of skin cancer where the cancerous cells are found in places other than the melanocytes.

Metastasis: The spread of cancer from one area of the body to another. For example, breast cancer may spread to the lymph nodes and lung cancer may spread to the brain.

Neoadjuvant Therapy: Chemotherapy or radiotherapy given before surgery.

Oncologist: A physician who specializes in cancer and its treatment.

Palliative Care: Therapy that focuses on improving one's quality of life rather than curing his or her cancer.

Polyp: Usually a benign growth. Some polyps on the wall of the colon or rectum can contain cancer or become cancerous over time.

Pap Smear: A test that involves the scraping and study of cells that line the cervix. Pap smears (also called pap tests) are used to detect precancerous and cancerous cells, as well as other noncancerous conditions.

Pathologist: A doctor who identifies diseases (such as cancer) by studying cells under a microscope.

Prognosis: The expected outcome of a disease and chances for recovery.

Prosthesis: An artificial replacement for a body part such as a breast or leg.

Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) Test: A test that measures the amount of a substance created by the prostate gland in the blood. An elevated amount could be the result of infection, prostate cancer or an enlarged prostate.

Radiation Therapy (also called radiotherapy): Therapy that uses high-energy rays (beams of light) or radioactive materials to damage cancer cells, making it more difficult for them to grow in number.

Reconstructive Surgery: Operation preformed to repair skin and muscles after surgery to treat cancer has been performed. Often used to reconstruct a breast after a mastectomy.

Recurrence: The development of cancerous cells in the same area or another area of the body after cancer treatment.

Risk Factors: Behaviors (such as smoking) or other circumstances (family or genetic history) that may increase your risk of cancer.

Side effects (of therapy): problems caused by the damage of healthy cells along with cancerous cells during treatment. Some common side effects of cancer therapy include being tired, feeling sick to your stomach (nausea), throwing up, hair loss and mouth sores.

Stages of Cancer: The progression of cancer from mild to severe. Usually indicates whether it has spread to deeper tissues or other parts of the body. One method used by doctors to stage different types of cancer is the TNM classification system. In this system, doctors determine the presence and size of the tumor (T), how many (if any) lymph nodes are involved (N) and whether or not the cancer has metastasized (M). A number (usually 0-4) is assigned to each of the three categories to indicate its severity.

Surgery: A procedure that removes, repairs or allows for the further study of a part of the body.

Tumor: An abnormal mass of tissue that can be benign or malignant.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 02/14
Created: 06/02

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